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My students' writing

A friend and colleague of mine, Prof. Andrew West, gave me the idea of having my students maintain research blogs, both as a way for him to keep up with what they are doing and for the student to practice writing. 

This has worked so well for my mentees that I decided to use it in my Intro Astro course. I was further encouraged by this article, in which the author Prof. Cathy Davidson notes
Given that I was teaching a class based on learning and the Internet, having my students blog was a no-brainer. I supplemented that with more traditionally structured academic writing, a term paper. When I had both samples in front of me, I discovered something curious. Their writing online, at least in their blogs, was incomparably better than in the traditional papers. In fact, given all the tripe one hears from pundits about how the Internet dumbs our kids down, I was shocked that elegant bloggers often turned out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research-paper writers. Term papers rolled in that were shot through with jargon, stilted diction, poor word choice, rambling thoughts, and even pretentious grammatical errors (such as the ungrammatical but proper-sounding use of "I" instead of "me" as an object of a preposition).
But it got me thinking: What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in college—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student's natural writing style or thought process? I hadn't thought of that until I read my students' lengthy, weekly blogs and saw the difference in quality. If students are trying to figure out what kind of writing we want in order to get a good grade, communication is secondary. What if "research paper" is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook? 
I've already found this to be true. Remarkably true, in fact. Check out the first handful of blog posts from my students. I was anticipating that I'd have to give a lot of feedback and corrections on their initial posts, but they all came out of the starting blocks blogging like pros!

Daniel Lo: The Night Beckons
David Vartanyan: Abstrosizics
John Pharo: Looking Up
Juliette Becker: Starstruck
Lauren Gilbert: Ay20
Mee Wong-u-railertkun: CQ, this is W9GFO. 
Monica He: Ay20
Nathan Baskin: Star Stuff
Tommy Heavey: A Chemist in Astronomy

Please leave comments if you really enjoy any of these posts. They need all the encouragement and feedback they can get on their way to becoming professional scientific researchers. 


Missy said…

I wonder why it's so much easier for some people to communicate this way. I know I was pretty awful at technical writing, but I always did well on the creative side of things. Could it be it's just a mindset thing, where they think they're being creative and doing something as simple as blogging, which makes it easier, instead of formally typing up a paper?

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